In the Shadows and Shallows of Culture: Or, Lip-syncing towards Chaos and Oblivion

by NORMAN SIMMS January 30, 2013

Well, well, well, should we be surprised? Beyoncé lip-synced the Star Spangled Banner because she placed the inauguration of a president second to some football match. Of course, she would, wouldn't she: sport trounces politics at any time.  As the first ever pop singer to be invited to the ceremony in Washington, DC, she did what we expect from celebrities. That's the way it is these days. Cosi fan tutti.  Whether you do or don't like Barack Obama, this was a day of national celebration, and a formal occasion marking the triumph of democracy. But then, alas, there are very few people-at least, those below a certain age - who recognize, let alone understand what dignity and integrity are all about. These days, formality has gone out the window, as has respect for others, including self-respect. Men and maritime staff first into the lifeboats, women and children as or if they can.

Look at the daily newspapers and the prime time news programs, what do you see-sport, popular music, media extravaganzas in full-blown self-congratulatory mode, the breakdown of all differences between formal and informal events, the need to dress-up, to speak to the nature of the occasion and the presence of authority and experience. There is a shrinking vocabulary, along with the loss of measured levels of discourse appropriate to time and place, a tide of cynical ignorance, an indifference to the rights of others. Don't hold the elevator door open. Grab the last slice of cake off the plate for yourself. Your almighty self.

There is nothing wrong with sport, popular music, and the rest of mass culture, but that is what it is - merely popular, mass entertainment. It is also big business, very big. However, it does not, one hopes, represent the best of our civilization, the accumulated wisdom and beauty of many centuries, even millennia. By definition, it is ephemeral, passing, superficial.  What is wrong is that pop has replaced more serious, well-crafted and deep thought almost entirely and is accepted without question in times and places where more considered, more profound references and allusions should be made. The superficial (although sometimes subtly subversive) mass culture has pushed away mainstream knowledge of what used to be considered classics, models for children to learn, sounds to have resonating in their minds, words to create thoughtful areas in the mind and in adult conversations, images to contemplate and compare to the raw and unsophisticated experiences of life.  Just watch the movies of the 30s and 40s, see whose biographies were enacted, what music was played in the background, which paintings adorned the walls of middle-class homes: and listen to the witty lyrics of the songs, the wordplay, the intricate metaphorical structures, the allusions to historical events; then turn to what passes for music and biopics today. Someone calculated that the average number of words per Hollywood film in the pre-television days was two or three times what it is today-where car chases, computer graphics and sheer pornography fills the space of the spectacle.

Instead of formal and informal education preparing young minds to deal with literature and the arts, as well as with complex scientific or philosophical ideas, simplistic slogans, sound-bites and cartoon-thin pictures have invaded schools, concert halls, lecture theatres, places of public discourse, and corridors of power. Instead of being able to share the treasures of our great civilization, we lock it away and mock it for being difficult and complicated. Whatever is not instantaneously available, whatever panders to untutored tastes, whatever flatters and confirms empty clichés and vague platitudes-that is what we bring into mainstream life and declare the politically correct, morally acceptable, and the intellectually desirable. 

To be sure, almost every generation looks askance if not aghast at the young people coming through, complains of the breakdown in education and the laziness of the students, wonders how civilization can survive the deep abyss between what used to be and what has already come into being; but never before has the contrast been emphasized so strongly as with the new digital technology.

Without these little niceties in our daily, ordinary lives, how can we expect to find any formalities and conventional diplomatic politeness in the special occasions that make up public life, and in particular in those encounters between different nations, religions and intellectual systems, encounters usually fraught with tensions and danger. The abuse of social media and celebrity confession has created an atmosphere where any private dealings are either treated as suspect because the new essence of communications has become full disclosure and therefore to discourage, if not quite to deny, the existence of deep thoughts and feelings which require long, slow processes to be generated and express themselves. To demand total transparency and to accept leakage of all confidential conversations and messages between negotiating parties removes the room in which proposals are worked out, ideas tested and avenues of agreement explored. Human intercourse has transformed itself into either childish babble or overly suspicious and aggressive shouting matches.  A toddler accuses her mother of lying when she made an honest error or miscalculated while promising an outing the next day: but apologies are so framed then that they are admissions of guilt. Business associates or emissaries of rival factions talk over one another and misinterpret preliminary gambits, trial balloons and defensive deferrals and non sequiturs. In the search for points of agreement or common knowledge to be used as rhetorical allusions, the sporting references or the signalling of action films set up the grounds for metaphors of contest and combat.  Subtleties, nuances and finely-woven webs of possible connectivity fade away in the glare of flashbulbs from the paparazzi and the mind-numbing noise of impertinent, ill-informed reporters. 

Yet an over-seriousness that cannot relax or see the humorous side of things is also dangerous because it assumes a fixity and absoluteness in a world that is always changing and a science that constantly self-corrects and advances its understanding the natural universe. The study of history, languages, literature and the arts cannot be relegated to the dark back rooms of a museum on the spurious ground that such reading, analysis and meditations are basically passive and backwards-looking, whereas the social sciences and the psychological investigations of contemporary circumstances should be front and centre, first in the classroom, and then in the media, as though only what is of the moment, the now of spontaneous feelings and opinions, is real and important. The collapse of rational distance between the experience and the object of discussion leaves no room for cautious, patient thought, and this existential celebration of the identification is what is manifest in the ceremonies of informality-with the disappearance of discursive levels of politeness, along with the eradication of structured processes of learning and understanding. Grown-ups wearing t-shirts with cartoons and fatuous slogans in public, middle-aged job-seekers showing up to interviews sporting a variety of tattoos and metallic studs on their faces and visible appendages, infants dressed up in sexually-provocative garments before they even know what gender they belong to, graduate students who wish to write dissertations on fridge-magnets or the rhythms of text-messaging.... Where does all this lead us?

Unfortunately, it leads us to the place in which slogans substitute for thought, false analogies based on superficial similarities and distant echoes of mere sound enact the choreographed semblances of logic, and noble emotional outrage at thus falsely perceived injustices repeat ad nauseum the slanders of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. Unable to orientate themselves in complex world events, the mob latches on to the rhythms of empty rhetoric, the fascination with metaphor and allegory, and the instantaneous ecstasy of communal trances. Witness the recent statements of a Liberal-Democrat British MP David Ward:

‘Having visited Auschwitz twice - once with my family and once with local schools - I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.'

In what universe does this man live and in what language does he find a vocabulary so far from reality. What fatuous crocodile tears for a misunderstanding of the Holocaust if any comparison between Palestinian treatment by Israel Nazi persecution and genocide against the Jews? Even begin to dignify such a monstrous set of lies with a rational response-to point out, for instance, that there can be no genocide where a population of Arabs increases, there can be no death camps where people live in self-governing territories, that fewer casualties occur over forty years than within a month of fighting in Syria-would be in itself obscene.  Here is lyp-syncing of the propaganda vomit spewed forth year after year by the Islamicist media and their politically-correct western acolytes. Or examine the mock outrage of an otherwise eminently sensible Hillary Clinton in the theatre of Washington DC investigations into the so-called Benghazi killings: rhetorically asking what difference there is between an imagined spontaneous outburst of hatred over a fourth-rate amateur film and a well-planned terrorist attack carried out to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary in Benghazi, Libya, she disappeared into a hazy illusion of moral equivalence, a dysfunctional optic signalled by her new spectacles to correct the effects of her physical collapse and dangerous blood-clot near her brain. The difference between these two scenarios of what might have brought about the death of those four American diplomats does matter because in one instance there would have been no time to react and in the other there was a failure of communications and a lack of will to act to protect American lives. 

Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011).  The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew  (also by Academic Studies Press) was published in July 2013; and the third Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in the Phantasmagoria (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, UK) in September 2013.


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